I understand that television requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief when it comes to facts and the real world. But when a show revolves around history, it should take extra precautions to be accurate with the historical facts, even if the drama around them might be a bit loose. While I enjoy the NBC television show Timeless, the historical inaccuracies that creep in are disappointing and problematic. Last week’s episode revolving around the Salem Witch Trials and Abiah (Folger) Franklin, for example, was full of problems, some of which could have been avoided with a simple search on Google.
As the heroic trio arrives at Salem on 22 September 1692, they bump into a young woman and ask who she is. She responds “Abby here. Who asks?” As a genealogist well-versed in colonial New England, I can say that Abby is a fairly common nickname. In those times it was used as a familiar form of Abigail, and occasionally Tabitha. It is not, however, a nickname for Abiah. I have spent many years researching Benjamin Franklin’s family, and I have never seen a document that refers to her as anything but Abiah. Modern families may use it as such, but this was not the case in 1692.
The response to “Abby’s” inquiry is “My name is Lucy and this is Rufus. We’re in from Boston.” Followed by “. . . my husband and I are from the Old South Church in Boston. Reverend Willard Sent us.” Reverend Samuel Willard served as pastor of the congregation from 1678 to his death in 1707. But in 1692, the congregation was the Third Church of Boston, and occasionally the South Church (because it was in the south end of the town), which gathered at the Cedar Meeting House. It did not become known as the Old South Church until 25 years after the witch trials, when the descriptor was added to differentiate it from the New South Church which had just started.
Even more egregious, however, is this simple fact: Josiah Franklin had been a part of the Third Church since arriving in Boston about 1684. Five of his children were baptized there. And when he married Abiah Folger on 25 November 1689, the Rev. Samuel Willard was the minister who married them. Curious then, that it does not even brook a notice of concern from “Abby” that she has never seen these people who claim to be from her congregation.
The subplot around Samuel Sewall is also a bit strange. There is no mention of the fact that Samuel, another congregant of the Third Church, was good friends with Josiah Franklin. One of the judges stands by and says nothing at all while his friend’s wife is accused of witchcraft? This does not seem likely. It is also odd that there is no discussion of the impact that the death of Samuel Sewall would have on history. He was the only one of the Salem judges that later publicly repented and apologized for his participation. He wrote an early treatise against slavery, and served as chief justice of the highest court of the commonwealth for many years, ruling in countless cases. Yet when he dies in the episode, it is all about Rufus.
When visiting “Abby’s” sister Bathsheba, her husband says to them: “Boston’s fifteen miles away. It must have taken you two all day.” The first error is minor, but still irritating especially for those of us who live in Massachusetts. It is true that the modern city of Salem is 15 miles from the city of Boston. However, the events of 1692 did not take place in that location. They took place in Salem Village, which today is the city of Danvers, Massachusetts. Salem Village was 20 miles away from Boston, not 15 — a 33% error in the distance travelled.
Another error is in the second part of the sentence: “It must have taken you two all day.” Had the company been journeying overland, this might be the case. But in 17th-century Massachusetts Bay, they would never have travelled that distance overland. They would have taken a boat. Right out of Boston Harbor, up the coast to Cape Ann and into Salem Harbor. A much shorter journey than overland.
Perhaps the most egregious error, however, is this: Abiah would never have gone to Salem in late September 1692. Indeed, she would never even have left Boston. In September 1692 she was raising five stepchildren ranging in age from six to fifteen, as well as her own baby son John, only twenty months old. It is hardly likely she would leave these children alone. But there is an even bigger reason she would not have left Boston in late September: because at that time she was seven months pregnant. She gave birth to her second child, Peter Franklin, on 22 November 1692. The show portrays her as thin, hardly the look of a woman in her final trimester. And with a sister and good friend there, nothing is said about her pregnancy while she is being manhandled and thrown in prison?
I understand the need to create drama for good television. But there are ways to do it without blatantly trampling all over the very premise that the show is founded on. Historians and genealogists could easily advise the writers on how to avoid major pitfalls like the ones above, yet still maintain the integrity of the storyline. In this episode, for example, the major issue of Abiah’s pregnancy could be avoided by moving it earlier in the year. And the director and producers could have been informed of the importance of not leaving the impact of Sewall’s death on the cutting room floor. And other issues, like the travel, are throwaway lines that could easily be rewritten. If Timeless is renewed for a third season (and I certainly hope it is), I hope the producers take head of these issues and bring on some consultants to ensure the integrity of all episodes.